Sunday, January 03, 2016

Book 2 of 100: "Dept. of Speculation" is about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.


This is the second time I am writing this post -- the third if you consider the fact that I first wrote it, then revised it after thinking about it a bit, and then sat down to put the final touches on it only to decide to undo something I pasted in and delete the entire post.

That is the least poetic way I can think to introduce book number 2, and trust me when I say that the earlier version of this post was better. But maybe the way this post is coming about is actually a more accurate way to discuss Book 2, Dept. of Speculation.

As the post title says, Dept. of Speculation is about how we tell our own stories -- to ourselves, to others, to the world.  All of our lives are really just an autobiography, after all, and we pick and choose what to let others see, constantly culling and editing our thoughts and the way we present ourselves to the world as we decide how our story will go. 

The thing is, we are only remotely in control of our stories, anyway. I wrote a comic that talked about free will a while back, and in it I pointed out that even the free-est of wills is only so free, because each choice we think we get to make is the product of a billion billion other choices over the history of the universe -- so how free are we?

Dept. of Speculation presents a similar worldview, while allowing for the idea that we can at least sometimes change our lives by presenting them in a different way.  The story is told from the point of view of the wife in a marriage that becomes troubled. It's told in an almost first-person-plus, as we're directly inside her head with little to no mediation: her thoughts come in a stream-of-consciousness, rarely describing the world directly: there's not much in the way of descriptions of scenes or people, and lots of talk about thoughts and feelings and actions and reactions.

This makes sense: how often do you walk into a room and think There's a yellow chair over there, with a tall handsome man standing by it. He's holding a red glass..? Never. So for true first-person, you've got to immerse yourself in the person's head the way they really think, and Jenny Offill, the author here, does that brilliantly: the story jumps in fits and starts, and people are referred to by nicknames, and there are snippets of quotes that the narrator remembers, places where her mind wanders, and more.  Done badly, this would be horrible. It's done beautifully here, and the world we get to walk through is real to the point of painfulness, while maintaining a kind of dreamlike quality somehow.

As the story unfolds, the narrator begins to relate troubles in the marriage even before we get to the big one: there is a miscarriage, and neighbor problems, and an episode with bugs or lice (it wasn't clear what), and all these little battles play out on the field of the narrator's mind, until the big one comes, and she finds out that her husband has been having an affair.

Even that is revealed almost obliquely, as it unfolds in the book -- the narrator never thinks he told me he was having an affair. She just relates the exact sequence of questions and answers that lets the answer be known, and we have to almost read between the lines to figure out what's going on.  

It feels exactly like how I think, and how I imagine everyone thinks -- although we can never really know if anyone else's mind works like ours.

The idea that this person is telling us a story is driven home in part by a shift in the focus: at the beginning the narrator speaks in the second person -- you, sometimes seeming to refer to herself, sometimes to her husband.  At one point in the book she suddenly begins referring to herself as the wife, and the distance between her and her life becomes more apparent.  Then, in a scene in which she confronts the other woman, the narrator pulls back even more -- recalling the episode and imagining what she would have done if one of her students had written such a scene, how she would have made it more believable and less pitiable.

That's not actually the best part of the story.  There's a heartbreaking night at a Holiday Inn Express, when the narrator flees the house after a fight.  Later on, as they attempt to reconcile, the narrator and her husband drive by a different Holiday Inn Express, and the narrator mentions that the worst night of her life was spent there. The husband doesn't know what she's talking about -- and how could she? She hasn't told him that story yet.

The book ends, but the story doesn't -- it doesn't resolve in any definitive way, another thing that made the book feel real.  Our own stories don't resolve; even when a given episode ends we are just in our same lives, moving forward, trying to fit the latest events into a larger framework, deciding what to keep and what to delete and what to modify.

Because we do modify our stories.  The wife in Dept. of Speculation lets us see inside her head, the way her story actually unfolds and what she lets people know, how she changes things when she relates them, how she alters her own perception of things. In retelling others about ourselves, in describing our day or telling someone about a confrontation or mentioning a piece of news, we edit the scenes down, present them in an order that makes sense, culling out details we think are unimportant but which might be more important, not saying everything we think or everything we feel.  Dept. of Speculation shows us our own thoughts in a mirror.

I listened to this book mostly while driving Mr F around.  He likes to go for rides in the early morning or late at night.  We drive mostly the same route, through an industrial park and then back through downtown and then the suburbs.  There usually isn't much traffic, and Mr F doesn't talk. He likes to roll down the window and hang his hands out. It leaves me a lot of time to think, to look back on my life and look forward, to mull over the events of the day and my various thoughts, to plan and feel and just be with my own mind.  It lets me make sense of my own story, without having to have other people looking at me or asking me about it, put everything in order.

We can never really know what's going to happen next. We are all in possession of things that were destroyed before they began: hoped-for dates that never panned out, children that were never born, vacations that had to be canceled.  We also have a whole trove of memories -- stories, memories are stories -- that we didn't ask to live through.  Arguments and deaths and accidents and other traumas, sometimes brought on by ourselves and sometimes driven into us by others.  We have things go wrong and things go right, both accidentally and on purpose.  Things don't turn out the way we imagined them to.

And through it all, we are editing, revising, culling, cutting, reshaping: we are deciding what to remember and what to let go, how to describe it, who to tell it to, what parts to play up, what parts to gloss over.  Our lives are only based on actual events, in the end.  If I hadn't told you that this was the third time I wrote this post, would you have guessed? By providing you that information, I gave you a version of myself that I chose to present. I didn't have to do that. I could've just reposted this and left out the part where I messed things up. That wouldn't have been a lie, but it wouldn't have been the truth, either.

I used to debate a friend about whether anything was actually true, about whether any story could be considered true, given that we are imperfect creatures who tell partial stories.  He thought they could be, that stories about our lives could be true

In Dept. of Speculation, the wife thinks the truth, but even then, we can't be sure it's the truth.  She sees her husband as this good-natured, always positive, almost pollyannish blonde midwesterner -- but he had an affair on her. He's not so good-natured.  She comes to realize that her daughter, too, is someone she can barely understand, and her daughter's only six. At the end of the book her daughter is wrapped up in a game, moving rocks around the yard.  She won't tell her mom what the game is, and the mom has to guess. The gulag game, she names it -- imagining that her six-year-old daughter is able to construct a prison and make a game of it. She doesn't know, and her daughter won't say.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we remember things and how we talk about them.  I think about Mr F, who doesn't tell us any story about himself, really -- and so we have to make one up for him.  When he cries we have to try to imagine what's upsetting him.  We took a ride today, and rather than go on his regular route, I thought he'd enjoy driving down by the Capitol, through the campus.  But about 10 minutes into it, he got angry: he bit at his seatbelt and clapped his hands to his head and bounced around and made angry noises.  I turned around, and drove back to his regular route.  He seemed to calm down then, once we were back heading to the industrial park.

"He didn't like the ride," is the story I told Sweetie.  My story, it was. I left out the part where we drove to the edge of the lake to see if it was freezing up yet; I didn't mention how I decided that Mr F might like the new ride in part because I wanted to try a new ride, rather than do the same ride for the fourth time that day. And who knows what the real thing was? Maybe Mr F didn't like that part of the book that we were listening to? Maybe he was just crabby? Maybe he really didn't like the new ride.

Dept. of Speculation is remarkable not just for the narrator, and not just for the unique way it tells the story.  It's worth reading because it makes you think, and that's a mighty, rare thing. 

No comments: